The Salt of our Earth
Sevara Nazarkhan Finds the Acoustic Savor of Pared-Down Uzbek Tradition on Tortadur
The grief of eternal exile and the ancient ache of love echoed in the pitch-black studio. From gut strings and china saucers, from frame drums and clacking trains, singer Sevara Nazarkhan urged centuries of urgent whispers, secret sighs, and passionate prayers into a new and intimate life.
Supported by a carefully selected handful of musical elders, Nazarkhan has returned on Tortadur to utter simplicity and the audacious acoustic roots of Uzbek tradition—the once lively world of house parties and poet-kings, of black-browed beloveds and word-drunk Sufi saints.
Though a seasoned pop performer—her voice has wowed everyone from Peter Gabriel to Russian pop diva Alla Pugacheva—Nazarkhan turned away from electronic sounds and complex production to the pure, quiet presence of traditional instruments and haunting lyrics, some hailing from as early as the 15th century. Throughout, her voice feels so immediate that you can almost feel the breath on your cheek, the hand on your arm.
“I wanted to express the salt of our earth, so to speak,” Nazarkhan reflects. “People have forgotten, or simply don’t know, about this wonderful, rich side of our music, music that is very subtle and expresses our past.”
To explore this richness, Nazarkhan softly yet intensely tells tales penned by the original Moghul, Bobur, and by Sufi master Mashrab, among other poets. They praise the beauty that can cause riots, the endless, exquisite pains of passion, but without the frenetic dance beats popular in Uzbekistan or the busyness of electronic production and virtuosic vocal feats. She channeled the spirit of traditional parties, when women would gather for music, tea, and talk.
“It’s a cry of my soul,” explains Nazarkhan, “but in a whisper. I sing very quietly.”
She found new uses for subtle, time-honored techniques, such as the tradition of singing into a tea saucer to add resonance to the voice (“Yovvoi Tanovar”). She rediscovered the heartbreaking words of an early 20th-century anti-Russian freedom fighter sent into exile, whose poem written in a cattle car had mysteriously morphed into an Uzbek party anthem (the train-backed sorrow of “Qargalar”). She gives space to quiet instruments like the gut-stringed doutar and the subtle percussion of the doira (traditional frame drum).
In her quest for a different approach to tradition, Nazarkhan worked very closely with professor and veteran maqam (Central Asian classical music) performer, Temur Makhmudov. Makhmudov not only helped Nazarkhan explore long neglected repertoire, he headed up the all-star ensemble she gathered. Nazarkhan brought together artists in their seventies who had been playing traditional music from childhood as part of musical families. They remembered the old sound, the gentle approach, the quiet expressiveness of their roots.
Assembling this Uzbek answer to the Buena Vista Social Club had its challenges. The feisty nai (traditional flute) player Abdulakhad Abdurashidov at first refused to join them. He was old and tired, he told Nazarkhan on the phone from a remote mountain retreat.
Yet Nazarkhan was taking a different approach to working with these musical elders. Instead of calling the shots or demanding uptempo folk-pop, she turned them loose, urging them to play what they felt. She dimmed the studio lights and let the music unfold. Before she knew it, word got out and there was a knock on the studio door. It was Abdurashidov, asking if anyone needed a nai player.
“He didn’t want to be bossed around or be part of some fusion experiment,” Nazarkhan recalls with a smile. “He’s the best player, and he got to play what he felt. All the musicians had no bounds. It was like they returned to the freedom of their youth and could do whatever they wanted.”
This freedom led to unexpected innovation. As the group worked on “Galdir Talqinchasi” and Nazarkhan sang lines referring to Jacob’s grief for the loss of his son Joseph, the musicians began to hum. It was so striking that Nazarkhan called for vocal mics for each of the players, resulting in something new: a male chorus backing a female singer. On tracks like “Tortadur,” Nazarkhan’s gritty, gentle voice entwines with Makhmudov’s baritone to moving effect.
“What I wanted to show with this album was very clear: the beauty of the melodies, the language, and the instruments,” say Nazarkhan. “I wanted to show that our traditions have meaning, not only as part of the Turkic world, but to everyone.”